Philosopher Michael Ruse says The God Delusion embarrasses him to be an atheist. The hype and embarrassment regarding geneticist, professor, and author Richard Dawkins’ anti-religious arguments lacks an important strand: his views on morality. These are interesting, significant, and worth weighing very seriously.
First, and most importantly, he corrects the wrong impression given by the title of his most famous book, The Selfish Gene. Many people took this to mean he thought human beings had no option but to act selfishly. On the contrary, at a personal level, Dawkins believes that in spite of whatever evolutionary processes brought us where we are, we have a responsibility to act as moral agents.
He grounds this in the fact that although genes always act in such a way as to maximize their chance of replicating themselves, the organism of which they are a part may in fact act altruistically, this being the way the genes optimize their chance of surviving. He gives four examples of this. One is how mammals can act with great altruism on behalf of their offspring. Another is the reciprocal benefits that flowers and bees bring to each other through the process of pollination. This co-operation increases the chances of the genes of each of them surviving.
In a more speculative way, Dawkins then builds on this in suggesting that as the sex instinct is not limited to reproduction but can find a broader focus in its contribution to culture, so this capacity to think of others is no longer confined to helping kin or forms of reciprocal altruism, but can find wider expressions. From a philosophical point of view, this is important in refuting the idea that as humans we will always be driven by considerations of narrow self-interest, that morality is unnatural to our evolutionary make-up. On the contrary, Dawkins shows that it is just as built-in for mammals such as ourselves to act in the interest of others. Morality is part of our nature.
Dawkins also draws on the work of Peter Singer and Marc Hauser who presented two moral dilemmas to a wide range of people. In the first, a railway truck careering out of control down a track is about to kill five people in the way. But the onlooker has the chance of pulling a lever and diverting the truck on to a siding where there is one person standing, who will inevitably be killed. Do you pull the lever? The vast majority of people of all ages, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds said yes.
In the other dilemma, there is no lever or siding, but a bridge on which sits a very fat man. If this man is pushed and falls in front of the truck, it will be stopped and save five lives. The onlooker is too light to make any difference to the truck, so jumping himself would serve no good purpose. But he is strong enough to push the fat man off. Should he do it? The vast majority of people, again from every conceivable background, said no.
Peter Singer draws some conclusions from this that I do not want to do myself, but the important point is that people’s moral judgments have far more in common than used to be thought. There was a time when people loved to emphasize the alleged differences between different societies and hence the relativity of all moral judgments. But it seems we all inhabit a moral realm which we can recognize as such.